Julian Wyzykowski of Cape Elizabeth has had access to an Apple computer since he was 2, and started playing Xbox video games when he was 3 – before he could read the instructions on the screen.
Now 16, he has his own company, Combustible Games, and has developed eight mobile apps and games for Apple.
He acknowledges that video games often are criticized for containing violence or tempting kids to spend too much time playing them. But he sees game development as an art form – and his future.
“They get a bad reputation: ‘They melt your brain.’ But there are games that can trigger emotions like a movie can. Even competitive games can be a good learning tool,” Wyzykowski said. “I would like to make games that are more meaningful than just shooting people. I look at games not as an entertainment platform, but an artistic platform.”
Wyzykowski’s current games range from a simple cowbell tone that rings when the screen is tapped – an homage to the “More Cowbell” sketch from “Saturday Night Live” – to more complex challenges such as Gears, Exits And Rays, or G.E.A.R., which requires players to rearrange mirrors to bounce a laser around obstacles.
Another game is a nod to video game history – he developed a version of the 1972 game “Pong” for the iPad.
“It’s the birthplace of video games. It’s one of the famed video games. It’s where it all started,” said Wyzykowski, who is self-taught in game development.
Wyzykowski, who is home-schooled and takes classes through Pennsylvania-based Keystone National High School, is part of a group of young developers who are creating games and tools for Apple and other companies.
Apple does not disclose the average age of its 6 million developers around the world, but in 2012 the company opened its developer conference to teenagers as young as 13. Last year, Apple opened its iOS Developer Program to the same age group.
Before Apple opened the conference to teenagers, “we would get emails after the developer conference from students, 16, 15, 14 years old, saying, ‘I already have X number of apps in the app store. I’m a developer. Can I take part in this too?’ ” Apple marketing chief Phil Schiller told The Wall Street Journal.
TEEN’S LATEST APP WELL REVIEWED
Technology companies are increasingly targeting young users in hopes of creating customers for life, said Jesse Moriarity, coordinator of the Foster Center for Student Innovation at the University of Maine.
“Apple wants to create an environment you want to be in so you buy all their products,” Moriarity said. “They are starting to target a younger demographic.
“You see little kids instantly know how to use a touch screen,” she said. “The iPad has only been around for five years, but for kids – that’s a significant chunk of time.”
Wyzykowski’s latest app, W8, is a news aggregator that intends to make a user’s idle time more interesting and informative. It was launched in January and has 400 users in 30 countries so far, not as many as Wyzykowski had hoped.
“We thought W8 was going to be more popular. We’re trying to figure out why it’s not,” Wyzykowski said. “When the apps store started, there were a fraction of the apps there are now.”
Apple said its app store opened in 2008 with 500 apps, and now has more than 1 million.
“There are companies spending hundreds of thousands of dollars doing apps marketing,” Wyzykowski said.
W8 has been well reviewed, getting the top rating of five stars from theiphoneappreview.com.
“This app is lightweight, clear, vibrant, and bursting with new content each day … the next time that you’re caught waiting for a plane, train, bus or automobile, download the W8 app instead of staring at the clock,” the reviewer wrote. “You’ll have a plethora of fresh content at your fingertips, and you will thank us later.”
DREAMING OF GREATER SUCCESSES
Creating the next big hit like Candy Crush Saga, the most downloaded free app for the iPhone in 2013, can be tough. Users are fickle, and the popularity of even hit games like Angry Birds, Words with Friends and FarmVille can ebb and flow, Moriarity said.
The success of games such as Flappy Bird, which became a global phenomenon before being pulled by its developer, Dong Nguyen, last month for being “too addictive,” entices Wyzykowski to keep trying.
“It kind of pulls you back in – it’s like the lottery,” he joked.
Getting any downloads at all is a challenge. Adeven, a mobile marketing analysis firm, found in a study that more than half – 579,000 – of all apps aren’t being downloaded. There’s even a term for those that go largely unnoticed: “zombie apps.”
Wyzykowski said he’s made only a few hundred dollars on his games and apps, but he doesn’t rule out the possibility of greater success.
WhatsApp, a messaging app, recently was acquired by Facebook for $19 billion.
“It’s not out of the realm of possibility for me or anyone else,” he said. “WhatsApp has been in the app store since almost the beginning and was just acquired. I like to think it’s possible to be successful.”
He has a game under development that he aims to finish by mid- to late summer. He also said he is toying with an invention that he’s not yet ready to disclose.
Wyzykowski’s passions center on developing games and inventing, as well as entrepreneurship. His idol is Elon Musk, a creator of PayPal and the founder of SpaceX and Tesla Motors, who he notes started as a computer programmer.
“Ever since I was young, I didn’t have a peer group,” Wyzykowski said. “I had some friends. But my peer group was really adults or people older than me.”
When he was in third grade, he participated in the high school robotics clubs and became friends with a high school senior.
“I was always bored at public school,” he said. “That led me to computer programming and games. I found something meaningful to me – something I was passionate about.”
LOOKING FOR HIGH-LEVEL TRAINING
Wyzykowski said he opted for home schooling as a means of spending more time on app development.
“I realized that this passion outside of school could be my career, while what I was learning in school was never going to be my career,” he said. “I’d much rather devote my time to what could be my future.”
His mother, Maria Wyzykowski, an artist, said home-schooling was the best decision they could have made for her son.
“If I had known how easy it was to home-school in Maine, I would have done it earlier,” she said. “He’s always been a voracious learner, and the pace of public school wasn’t for him.”
The family is now looking to move to the West Coast to be closer to the gaming-development hubs like Seattle, she said.
Julian Wyzykowski said he would be interested in attending the DigiPen Institute of Technology in Redmond, Wash., which was ranked third last year on The Princeton Review’s list of top undergraduate schools for video game design.
“Most colleges don’t have the level I would need,” he said. “I would like to avoid college if I can, partly because of the cost, but partly because there are veterans in the industry that have been developing games since they were kids. They learned how to program games and taught themselves everything they needed.”
Jessica Hall can be contacted at 791-6316 or at: